Coalition asks Inspector General to determine whether political meddling led agency to drop probe of gas drilling company
WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than 80 organizations from 12 states and a New York State Senator today called on the inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate a decision to drop legal action against a drilling company despite evidence that it had polluted residents’ well water near Fort Worth, Texas.
The organizations sent a letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins, Jr., asking him to broaden an ongoing investigation of a case that made national news last year when the EPA dropped an enforcement action against Range Resources Ltd. after earlier invoking rare emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act. New York State Senator Tony Avella is sending a similar letter later today. Elkins began investigating the case after six U.S. senators asked him last June to determine whether EPA had followed proper procedures.
Associated Press and other news outlets have recently brought new information to light that raises additional questions about EPA’s commitment to protecting the public.
The case began in 2010 when EPA found that Range’s natural gas drilling near Forth Worth had “caused or contributed” to pollution of residents’ well water with benzene and dangerous levels of methane. The agency issued an emergency order requiring Range to provide drinking water to two families and to install meters in their homes to monitor explosion risks, among other actions.
The drilling industry and other critics charged that EPA’s decision to drop the case was proof that it had “rushed to judgment” and that Range had not polluted the families’ water. EPA did not explain its decision, issuing only a two-sentence statement describing its withdrawal as an opportunity to work with Range to make drilling safer. The EPA also withdrew the requirement that Range provide the families with drinking water.
Last month (January 2013), the Associated Press reported that the EPA made its decision even though a 2011 report it commissioned from an independent scientist had strongly suggested that one of Range’s natural gas wells was the source of the water contamination. EPA did not mention that report when it announced its reversal.
The joint letter calls on the inspector general to investigate why the EPA did not mention the scientist’s analysis, whether the EPA had a scientific basis for dropping the case against Range and whether the EPA had responded to political pressure, including recently-disclosed communications from Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“We fear that the EPA has failed in its duty to protect people’s health,” said Paul Gallay, President of New York-based Riverkeeper. “As a critical decision about fracking looms in New York state, we are left wondering what science and data have been kept secret from our experts and decision makers. All eyes are on Governor Cuomo to protect New Yorkers, and we urge him to take a step back and see what other information is hidden that could prevent an informed decision.”
“Range Resources went behind-closed-doors and solicited special favors rather than be a good neighbor to homeowners whose drinking water was polluted by Range’s drilling,” said Earthworks Energy Program Director Bruce Baizel. He continued, “The fact they were successful calls into question all public oversight of oil and gas development.”
“EPA’s inexplicable decision to drop the case adds to a growing concern that drilling regulation is woefully inadequate even as drillers push into more populated areas from New York to California,” said EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt. “The public must have confidence that the EPA is acting to protect our health and drinking water, not corporate profits.”
Associated Press reported that Steven Lipsky, whose family EPA identified as having been affected by the contamination, can light his well water on fire and now pays $1,000 a month to have water delivered.